When writer Tom Cooper arrived in New Orleans in July of 2010, things were in bad shape. After the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and collapsed a few months earlier, poison was spewing into the Gulf of Mexico in what ended up being the largest marine oil spill in the history of the industry. Cooper was teaching at a small university in Thibodeaux, Louisiana just a few miles away from the looming disaster.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been in New Orleans in the summer, but it’s not a fun place,” Cooper tells me. “There’s this pall that hangs over the city. The weather is terrible. Everything is in the doldrums, and everybody is in a bad mood. When you add in the oil spill, you just got this sense that everyone felt defeated. It was like, really? Five years after Katrina? And then you would go out there and see the sheer magnitude of the devastation. It looked like the apocalypse.”
Counterintuitively, Cooper took that bleak scene and carved out The Marauders, a profanely funny debut novel set out in the bayou about a bunch of ne’er do wells clashing over drugs, swindles, and a lost pirate treasure. Its milieu comes as something of a surprise, as Cooper has avoided using New Orleans and its environs in his previous work.
“It was organic,” Cooper says. “I started this book in South Florida and it was an entirely different book that changed a lot and took a different trajectory. By the time I was serious about it, I had been here for about three and a half years. By then, I didn’t feel that I had earned it, per se, but I felt familiar enough with the environment and the people and the locations that it felt right to try it.”
We talk about the fact that there’s no white hat hero in The Marauders. A drug-addled, one-armed scoundrel named Gus Lindquist hires Wes Trench, a troubled young member of the colony, to help him seek out a lost cache of pirate Jean Lafitte. Along the way, they run into trouble with Reginald and Victor Troup, two sadistic dope dealers, and local stoners Nate Cosgrove and John Henry Hanson, who have an eye on bogarting the Troup brothers’ gnarly weed. Bad things happen.
“I just have never been interested in ‘good people,’ ” Cooper laughs. “Morally devious characters are just more interesting to write about, and to read about, too. I have to kind of suppress my gag reflex when I read about characters that are too virtuous. There does seem to be a recurring impression that there isn’t a real moral center to the book, aside from Wes Trench. I will say that I laughed a lot writing about Cosgrove and Hanson. I think they recall the clown figures in Cormac McCarthy’s books—Gene Harrogate from Suttree and Jimmy Blevins from All The Pretty Horses. I’ve always liked those singular clown figures that offer a comedic relief that relieves the darkness of a book.”
That said, Cooper—a well-respected purveyor of literary short stories to journals like Oxford American—can’t be sure he’s written a pure crime novel.
“I don’t know if it’s an out-and-out crime novel,” he says. “I don’t mind people calling it that, because I love crime fiction and noir stories. But these days I think the boundaries are blurring a bit. I wanted it to be a fun book, but I also wanted it to be character-driven. Looking for a para-literary comparison, we would be talking about shows like The Wire or Breaking Bad or The Fall, where there are inflections of genre but at the end you’re wrapped up in the characters. I will admit I was reading a lot of Elmore Leonard around this time and one of his edicts about writing crime fiction is that at some point in the story, you have to have a big bag of money. Something has to happen to move the narrative forward, so if the characters are looking for something—whether they find it or not—there is an element of potential violence in the air.”
Cooper draws inspiration from a variety of sources, ranging from novelists like Stephen King, Robert Olen Butler, and Richard Lange, who have all praised The Marauders, to gothic influences like Flannery O’Connor and kindred spirits like John D. MacDonald.
“There is that tradition of grotesque literature in the south and writers from southern Louisiana tend to capitalize on that movement,” he observes. “Hopefully it’s not overstated in this book because I do think some writers tend to exaggerate things to a cartoonish degree and then the characters become parodies of themselves. You can always see the writer’s hand pushing them to and fro in a comedic fashion, so I tried very consciously to avoid that impulse.”
As well as teaching part-time, Cooper devotes himself to multiple projects at a time, including several spec screenplays as well as more stories and novels. He says his next proper novel is likely to turn out “smaller and nastier and driven by a female character.” For now, he’s ready for readers to take on The Marauders, which hit shelves this week.
“I do think that reading The Marauders takes a little bit of investment, especially for people that might not be used to reading this sort of thing,” he muses. “The one drawback of marketing this book as crime fiction is that people expect it to follow a very brisk path in which everything is firing on all cylinders. In order to understand the story, you need to know how these characters relate to each other and how their paths ultimately converge. It’s not clear-cut for around 120 pages just what these characters really have to do with each other. But that does give the book a nice ‘Then what happened?’ element that I hope keeps people reading to the end.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.